Throughout the Holy Gospels, Jesus has many discussions with the scribes and Pharisees. To note antipathy in these discussions would be an understatement. Now modern scholars would say that the repartee reflected second-generation conflicts, that the communities for which the evangelists wrote were realizing their unique identity by breaking ties with their Jewish parentage, or some such thing. I cannot dispute that possibility. As the Church grew and her understanding of the Truth was being clarified, she was bound to experience "growing pains." Who can deny the working of the Holy Spirit in this natural process?
Jesus definitely challenges the leadership on their hypocrisy and the bad example it gives to rank-and-file believers (and, for that matter, fellow leaders). Overt improper conduct can instill the impression that "since X did it, it must be all right for me to do it." Of course everyone--the leader included--is a frail human being, and no human being always lives up to the standards expected of him. We aren't talking about weakness, but about a leader making for himself a conscious mental reservation that supports and sustains his improper actions. While we can't judge a person's intentions, we can see those intentions play out in various ways. The leader, therefore, must always be vigilant.
Amid the volley between Our Lord and the Leadership, this weekend we are treated to a glimmer of hope. One scribe seems to be getting it. He asks Jesus for a scholarly opinion with practical implications: "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus responds with the Shema (Dt 6:4), the ancient monotheistic creed. Not merely a profession of one's faith about the unicity of the Godhead, the Shema is also an act of entrusting oneself to that Godhead "with all your heart, with all your soul, ["with all your mind," Jesus adds] and with all your strength." Here as always in Holy Writ, faith works through love (cf. Gal 5:6); and this especially in light of Jesus' inclusion of Leviticus 19:8, which He calls the "second" of all the commandments: the love of neighbor as of self.
Based on the scribe's response ("You are right in saying..."), one senses that the Shema (Dt 6:4) is already in his mind, and also the Leviticus addendum--which, the scribe suggests, is no addendum at all. Taken together, the components of the Double Precept form the proper context for liturgy: "To love God...and your neighbor...is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." Which is to encapsulate Jesus' message to the scribes and Pharisees: "Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'" (Mt 9:13; cf. Hos 6:6).
If the patient reader would permit me a spot of eisegesis (reading one's own presuppositions and issues into a text), it seems that this scribe is kissing up to Jesus. The scribe's associates are rolling their eyes at each other: "Oh, isn't Jacob special. Who does he think he's impressing? Just like that bloke who told Jesus that he observed all the commandments since his youth [cf. Mk 10:20]!"
Mindful that eisegesis is all about taking things out of context, let's take this voyage even farther out to sea...
Maybe the scribe might be trying to dazzle his associates. For whatever reason, the Lectionary excludes the first half of the first verse in the Gospel for 31st OT B, to wit, "when [the scribe] came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he [Jesus] had answered them, asked him..." So maybe this impresario is looking for a chance to increase his "synagogue cred" (or, ecclesiastically speaking, to get on a terna) by asking an erudite question.
After all this, we must concede that this scribe may indeed be genuine. Polemics--the situation presumed by many modern Scripture scholars--tends to ignore the possibility of sincerity. Who, if anyone, is he trying to impress? One of those questions we'll have to ask in heaven, if it even matters to us anymore by that point.Jesus' response to the scribe, "You are not far from the kingdom of God," is tantamount to the assurance that he's gotten an "A" in the class. Then again, knowledge only takes us so far in life. "If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it" (Jn 13:17). Our blusters of blarney may impress our friends and confound our enemies, but there is One who "can neither deceive nor be deceived." When That One speaks, nothing can be added, and nothing will be retracted. Be concerned about what He thinks, and it will suffice.